What coronavirus can teach us about tackling climate change

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 31 March 2020 16:37 GMT

A woman wearing a protective face mask walks by blossom trees in Battersea Park as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues. London, Britain March 21, 2020 REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

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The shutdowns imposed in response to the pandemic are a crash course in a greener future for the world's richer inhabitants

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LONDON, March 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Persuading people to try out a more climate-friendly lifestyle with cleaner air, less non-essential shopping and more modest travel plans has always been a hard sell during my time as climate change editor at the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

I've spent years trying - not always successfully - to slash my own contributions to global warming, and thinking about how to paint a picture for others of the possible benefits of us all doing it.

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Now the shutdowns imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic are providing an inadvertent crash course in a potentially greener future for the world's richer inhabitants, who account for most of climate-changing emissions.

Almost overnight, the virus has forced changes that show cutting consumption is not impossible, but simply requires a compelling enough reason.

Air travel - a big contributor to the emissions fuelling global warming - has virtually disappeared.

David King, Britain's former chief scientist and special representative for climate change, is no longer jetting off to meetings - instead getting lots done via online conference apps.

"I'm communicating with people around the world much more efficiently than I have ever before ... because I'm not running around by plane," he told a recent online discussion run by the Extinction Rebellion climate activist movement.

"This is a very different world. I’m hoping we will learn a lesson from it."

But efficient, low-carbon meetings - and the chance to join them in jeans and slippers from the sofa - aren't the only benefits coming from this global crisis.

Outside my home in Tooting in south London - at least in the  early morning when I venture out to walk the dog - the tang of car exhaust has vanished from the air, which is cleaner than I remember it in the near-decade I've lived here.

Roads are largely empty of vehicles and instead mask-clad cyclists, joggers and pram-pushing parents are claiming a share of the space.

With spring blossoms appearing and the roar of aircraft hushed, I can hear the bees buzzing in our garden.

Like many people, I'm thinking of planting some vegetables this year in pots or available patches of earth - a skill we all might need in a food-uncertain future as the planet heats up.

I'm building new relationships with our neighbours too, as we learn the importance of community and looking out for each other.

And then there's the additional time with my family.

I've seen all the cartoons and memes about the horror of being trapped at home with those you thought you loved. It hasn't always been easy, and we're only one week in.

But I'm luckier than many. With my teenage children home from school - keeping up with friends and class-work via apps I hadn't heard of just days ago - there's now time to eat lunch together each day, a rare pleasure.

Technology has made keeping up with the rest of my far-flung family easier, and now, with more free time in the evenings - no commute, no sport - I'm calling them far more often, and chatting with friends I haven't spoken to in years.

Shopping has become something we do only occasionally and only when really necessary. We miss our favourite restaurants but a lot of entertainment, from concerts to pub quizzes, has moved online.

It's not the same, but it's not terrible either.

Michael Marmot, an epidemiologist, public health expert and past president of the British Medical Association, said the virus outbreak has shown that we can change our habits - fast enough, perhaps, to even deal with the looming climate crisis as well as COVID-19.

"We've exposed to ourselves that we can do things differently - and we have to," he said during the Extinction Rebellion event, arguing for a switch to a life judged more on "meaning, balance and purpose" than economic growth.

"That’s what I’d like to see emerge from this crisis."

That doesn't mean we won't book airline tickets when this pandemic fades, or rush to see family and friends again.

But we'll do it with the knowledge that we can make what once were unfathomable shifts - because we already have.

"What was once impossible is now happening," King said.

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(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; Editing by Megan Rowling and Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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